Above: View of the elegant spire from the south side of the Thames. It was taken in 2003 while a new glass-clad office block called Plantation Place was being completed.
The earliest recorded mention of the church was in 1272. The church was dedicated to St Dunstan, Archbishop of Canterbury AD 959-988. It was designated ‘in the east’ to distinguish it from St Dunstan in the West, in Fleet Street.
Probably the first pictorial representation of the church was on the Agas map of about 1561. The churchyard on the south side of the church is shown with a large curved retaining wall because the church and churchyard were built beside St Dunstan’s Hill. What is remarkable is that the retaining wall, which is clearly shown on the map, looks exactly the same shape today.
Above: The medieval church of St Dunstan in the East shown on the Agas map, c1561. The layout of the churchyard, with the retaining wall, is still the same today.
Most of the church was rebuilt in 1633. Only a few decades later it was destroyed in the Great Fire which reached the church on Monday, 3 September 1666. Only the outer walls of the church remained standing. The church was rebuilt by Christopher Wren in 1671 using much of the original foundations and the surviving outer walls. The steeple, also designed by Christopher Wren, was added 1697-99.
By 1810 the weight of the roof was causing the walls to tilt outwards from the perpendicular by seven inches (1778 mm). A new body for the church was erected 1817-21, designed by David Laing.
The church was severely damaged in the Blitz of 1941, during the Second World War. Wren’s tower and steeple survived the impact of the bombs. Only the north and south walls of the church remained standing. After the War, it was decided not to rebuild the church. The ruins were designated a Grade I listed building on 4 January 1950. The parish was combined with All Hallows Barking.
In 1967 the City of London Corporation decided to turn the ruins of the church into a public garden, which opened in 1971. A lawn and trees were planted within the ruins, with a low fountain in the middle of the nave. The tower now houses the All Hallows House Foundation. On occasions, open-air services are held in the church, such as on Palm Sunday prior to a procession to All Hallows Barking – following the route of St Dunstan’s Hill and Great Tower Street.
The site of the church is between St Dunstan’s Hill and Idol Lane, just north of Lower Thames Street. Of greatest interest is the ornate spire on top of the tower.
To complete the story, a school known as ‘St Dunstan’s College’ that had been started by the church was recognised by Henry VI in 1446. In 1888, the school moved from the City when it was re-founded on a new site at Catford, in SE London, on land that had been given to it in earlier times. A ‘clean break’ was made from its associations with the founding church and the school has had no contact with the church since it moved – although the school is well aware of its early origins. The large school building stands in its own grounds beside Stanstead Road which is part of the busy South Circular Road.